Leading When You’re Not in Charge

7 Ways to Drive Results Without Any Official Authority

Edward Sullivan
Jun 8, 2017 · 4 min read

At every stage of your career, and throughout life in general, you will be challenged to lead when you’re not really in charge. This is the nature of human systems. And learning how to do this well is what separates those who surpass their peers and go on to lead their own business units or companies, from those who squander their potential as middle managers.

Most of us believe that “leaders” are people who occupy certain roles that come with some sort of official authority. The CEO is a leader. The President is a leader. The Quarterback is a leader. We often believe leadership is bestowed upon someone by their role or title.

Yet, when we say people “rise to the occasion” or “take the lead,” we are basically saying that people with no official authority sometimes go beyond what’s expected of them and exercise leadership.

This is really important to take in.

Leadership, then, is not at all about a role. It is actually the act of getting a group of people to do something that is in their best interest, or in the best interest of others, whether or not you have the authority to command those people to do what you want them to do.

Here are seven ways to exercise leadership when you’re not in charge.

I won’t be so audacious as to say this is an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start. Keep in mind that it’s best to exercise some or all of these at once, rather than piecemeal, as using just one of these in isolation can kill your effectiveness.

  1. Have the Courage to Act. When utilized well, and along side the other principles laid out below, having the courage to take the initiative is often rewarded with respect. Most people are deathly afraid of leading without authority, so when they see it done well, they most often admire it. When it’s done poorly, however, (e.g. when it seems to be more a play for power or to feed one’s ego), the would-be leader can be ignored or taken out quite quickly.
  2. Keep the Work at the Center. Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz, the father of Adaptive Leadership, argues that the harder the problem you’re trying to solve, the more people will want to distract themselves from the work at hand. This is why organizations working on hard problems have so much interpersonal politics. By keeping the work at the center, you encourage people to confront the problem, rather than get sucked into gossip and other distractions that keep real work from getting done.
  3. Be Values Driven, and Be Obvious About It. It’s really hard to argue with someone who is driven by a just and clearly communicated set of values. If you help your colleagues see that your interest in exercising leadership is driven by values, and not by self-interest, it is very hard to say no, unless of course they have conflicting values. In which case, you might want to seek other would-be followers.
  4. Communicate the Big (and Little) Picture. Often, the right thing to do (which is most often the hard thing to do) seems isolated from a larger context. Sometimes everyone is so focused on the macro-level, they can’t see their ability to make a difference at the micro-level right in front of them. Your ability to to lead without authority will grow in proportion to your ability to communicate how small actions here and now have larger results over there sometime later.
  5. Tap Into Their Sense of Purpose. Everyone has a purpose. But not everyone knows what theirs is. As a leader, you have an opportunity to help people tap into their own sense of purpose. Do you see an unused talent or expertise inside them? Do you see a new application of an old expertise? Can you see a way for them to use themselves in a more meaningful way than they can see right now? If you can tap into their sense of purpose in a compelling way, you can help them direct that purpose and that energy to something extremely beautiful.
  6. Tell a Compelling and Inspiring Story. People get committed to causes, but they get inspired by stories. Communicating your vision in a clear and compelling way paints a picture that people can see and feel. The more vivid the image, the more inspiring the story. But you also have to know your audience. Some people are inspired by morality and purpose. Others are inspired by feeling part of something. Still others are inspired by logic. Tell the story that motivates your particular audience.
  7. Hold Steady. Another principle borrowed from the Heifetz Adaptive Leadership Model, Holding Steady is all about patience. Often, we only get one chance to influence a group, and then we have to let it percolate around in the system for a bit before making another intervention. Try to intervene too much or too loudly, and you may become like one of those preachy people on the street no one listens to or takes seriously. Holding steady is about putting a great idea out there and letting people find it, own it, and then share it elsewhere on your behalf. And that’s how you begin to build a movement.

What else works for you when trying to exercise leadership when you’re not in charge? I’d love to hear your ideas, no matter how tactical or theoretical they are.


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Edward Sullivan is the Managing Partner of Velocity Group — a boutique coaching and training organization for start-up founders and Fortune 500 executives. With offices in San Francisco and New York, Velocity helps leaders and their teams optimize their performance and overcome obstacles to growth. He can be reached at edward@gainvelocity.com.

Edward Sullivan

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I’m an entrepreneur and executive coach. Let’s talk. edward@gainvelocity.com.

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